Shrink Rap

This kind of stress calls for more than a bubble bath

By: Merrill Powers, LCSW
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Since Election Day, my neighbor’s nine-year-old grandson has been having nightmares because his classmates are saying atomic bombs will fall.
I’m meeting people who express feelings of hopelessness, moral despair, and unbearable anxiety. The news is full of stories of demonstrations, busy suicide hotlines, and children in tears from fear and bullying. Two years of contentious attacks on both sides have created a level of social mistrust creating political post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), if you will.
Last month, a survey by the American Psychological Association found that over half of Americans were experiencing a significant amount of stress directly related to the election.
Research has shown that stress can suppress the immune response and impair gene expression, altering brain function and genetic memory. Social mistrust is especially toxic, when we feel devalued and disrespected by others in our community and we aren’t sure we can trust our neighbors.
Toxic stress can lead to despair and social disconnection, producing a threat response commonly found in veterans of combat.
Stress is a signal that something we care about is at stake. Those whose side lost the election may fear the elimination of social policies developed over the past 50 years. American children born to illegal immigrants may fear separation from their parents if they are deported, and refugees may be afraid they won’t survive if they are returned to their home countries.
Those who voted for the victor may remain in a state of stress from the uncertainty of what the new administration will be able to accomplish. Will deregulation and tax cuts be enough to create more jobs when technology is replacing the need for people?
In my family, like many others, we have been avoiding these topics for the past two years. No one wants to spoil Thanksgiving dinner with an argument over whether global warming is a hoax, but avoidance and isolation makes stress worse.

How do we recover?
To change toxic stress into a positive stress response, we need to change our mindset to engage those who think differently than we do. We need to remind ourselves that people can change; even those who make us feel threatened. When we listen to our opponents with empathy and compassion for their experiences it can produce a desire to come together to work for our mutual benefit. Research done by the Stanford Center for Compassion and Altruism shows that when people reach out to their adversaries, they can change conflicts.
The first place to start stress reduction is with daily exercise and a mindfulness practice. Many studies have shown positive neurological changes from mindful meditation or prayer. Mindfulness can be as simple as noticing the sun rise each day, the beauty of the fall leaves, and the sounds of the birds in your backyard. Mindfulness Coach and Dharma Talks are useful apps for mindfulness. The UCLA website has free downloads of introductory guided meditations that you can do on your own. The week before the election, my 90-year old mother was more stressed than I had ever seen her. I gave her a brief tutorial on mindfulness. The next day she went to the river and watched it splash over the rocks for a half hour. She had reset her neurobiology, and felt calm again.
Most important in times of disconnection, however, is the moral elevation that comes from doing good in your own community. You can turn feeling powerless into feeling powerful by doing something for a neighbor or a friend, contributing to a community effort through an organization or on your own, and reengaging with the world.
If your anxiety is not responding to your stress-control efforts, it may be that an unresolved memory is triggering feelings of powerlessness. In that case, please seek assistance from a licensed professional mental health therapist. Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing therapy (EMDR) is especially efficient in healing disturbing memories.

Helping the children
To help fearful children, make sure you create a safe place in your own home and in their schools, where they feel accepted and loved regardless of their ethnicity, gender, or immigration status.
Remember to model calm, staying focused on your day-to-day reality. Teach them empowerment by encouraging them to write letters to leaders about their concerns and ideas. Teach them self-worth by finding ways for them to make positive contributions to the community.
Children have limited experience, and they think in black and white terms. Share your experience and knowledge about how our democratic system affects communities and individuals.
We get a do-over every four years.
Merrill Powers is a licensed clinical social worker in private practice in Downtown Auburn. She can be reached at